Disclaimer 1: This post is going to contain some spoilers for the movie The Goonies, which apparently everyone saw. On the off-chance you were like me and haven’t seen it yet, then proceed with caution.
Disclaimer 2: This is also going to be a bit more personal than some of my other works, which sucks because I didn’t want it to be, but I feel it’s important to do so. So, be advised: it might get real.
PREAMBLE: I NEVER SAW THE GOONIES
The above statement is something that I’ve often said at parties or among fellow hobbyists, and something that I’ve had to constantly explain and excuse myself for.
To be fair, there are a lot of films or shows I haven’t seen, books I haven’t read, games I never played, and celebrities or athletes I don’t know and cannot identify. I didn’t know who Matt Sundine, Maple Leafs hockey giant, was until the day he retired from the league, despite him apparently being a sports superstar for fifteen years. I’ve never seen Saved By The Bell or Friends or Full House or most of the other ‘90s sitcoms that aired back then, although I was familiar with Fresh Prince of Bel Air and, for some reason, Blossom. I also didn’t own a video game console year-round because that shit was expensive and my parents didn’t care for it, so I never grew up struggling with Mega Man bosses the way many of my contemporaries did.
For many of my friends, most of these minor offenses are pretty appalling, and not seeing The Goonies is the icing on the extremely disappointing cake that had been baked for me.
Let me clarify something: I knew of The Goonies. I’d seen bits and pieces of it on television, and I was aware of the premise, but what I knew about the film was never enough to make me want to watch it. My reasons were simple enough: it didn’t interest me. As a child, I was more likely to watch Rankin-Bass’ The Hobbit or Enemy Mine, something with a stronger science fiction or fantastical element. Stories about real people in real (or real-ish) situations never really appealed to me until I was in high school and university. And yet, I’d avoided the film for years. By then, I was (allegedly) an adult and I told myself that I didn’t have time for any of its tomfoolery.
Finally, several of my friends announced that they were sick of my shit, and I sat down and watched the whole damn thing. I did this partly to get it off my list of things I had to watch, read, or experience in order to prove to my friends that I had blood in my veins. I came at it from my usual perspective, asking myself why the film hit so many high notes for people of my generation. I rode in on my high horse and began my usual stubble-stroking pretentious analyses, picking apart the film and drawing parallels between it and several cultural landmarks from that era and the times before it.
Then, something else happened. When it was all over, I came across a deeply sad revelation about myself. That must sound like the hokiest claim I’ve made thus far. How in the hell can a thirty-two year old man(child) have an existential crisis after watching The Goonies? That shouldn’t even be a sentence, let alone an idea!
Well, you’re about to find out why, so let’s go digging for some buried treasure.
PART ONE: I DON’T GET IT
One thought I had when finally watching this film was “When will these idiots shut up?”
The dialogue in The Goonies is perhaps the one thing I dislike the most about it. The characters are, to be fair, distinct in their own ways, but it’s hard to get a clear sense of their characters sometimes when they spend much of the film shrieking over one another. In a weird way, it helps the film as much as I find that it hinders it. Children’s energy is a hard thing to contain and sometimes comprehend. Many children and teenagers don’t know how to be quiet and contemplative. Patience is a concept that they have to learn. As such, it’s interesting to see that aspect of simply being a child represented in cinema.
There is a charm to it – except it wears off.
We end up with a lot of scenes where the protagonists’ dialogue is drowned out by everyone trying to get their lines out. For instance, while Brand and Andy are trying to get their romantic subplot going, it’s hard to tell at first why they decided to follow the rest of the Goonies into the abandoned restaurant’s sub-basement or why they tried to kiss each other so early into the expedition. Even though it’s a neat touch, so much characterization gets pushed to the side because of it.
To be honest, I didn’t think much of the film as I was sitting through it. It was the “local children discover something kuh-razy” plot I’d seen before in Flight of the Navigator and Explorer, and several other films from the 1980s. I’d found myself back to where I was when I was trying to comprehend this movie as a child. Then it dawned on me that this film just might be a parody of The Hardy Boys.
Edward Stratemeyer’s The Hardy Boys is a decades-spanning book series and franchise about two brothers and their friends having adventures together in and around their hometown of Bayport. So much of the Hardy Boys library involved solving mysteries, uncovering strange secrets, and thwarting dangerous criminals (who were sometimes racial and ethnic stereotypes).
From there, we can see the parallels between the two. We have Mikey and Brand, a pair of brothers and their mutual friends who get pulled into an adventure involving a trio of convicts and a treasure hidden in their hometown. The filmmakers even kept the ethnic stereotype theme going with the antagonists. The Fratellinis are Italian stereotypes down to their core: a pair of brothers being bossed around by their squat mother as they bicker and eat pizza. One of the brothers even sings Italian opera on occasion, because why not.
The parody begins when it’s implied that the heroes have had other “adventures” in the past, but it’s also pretty strongly implied that the titular Goonies spent a lot of their time goofing off. This made sense, really. How many mysteries could they have solved in a town of thirty-thousand people? Astoria doesn’t look like the kind of place smugglers would wind up in on a regular basis. This idea is demonstrated with a sequence near the beginning where one of the characters sets off a Rube Goldberg Device (one of many) to open his front gate rather than just walking up and opening it. This shows that the Goonies do have a lust for adventure and are clever in their own rights, but are tied down by a boring day-to-day life in a dinky port town and therefore trapped in a big-fish-small-pond situation.
As for the Goonies themselves, the boy Goonies lack the “ideal American” image Stratemeter wanted children to aspire to. Chunk is loud and overweight, Data’s a gangly science whiz, and Mikey’s an asthmatic with braces. The two boys who are closest to that are the regularly-emasculated gym rat Brand and the obnoxious Mouth. Not much can be said about Andy and Stef, though, who are relegated to being Girl Archetypes A and B from minute one and are stuck like that forever.
However, the Goonies as a whole are more raucous and foul-mouthed than the clean and conservative Hardy Boys. They act out, are impulsive, and are generally close to how actual pre-teens and teenagers would behave if they discovered a pirate galleon under their town.
There’s something else at work, though. Something else we need to pick at.
PART TWO: MAYBE I’LL NEVER REALLY GET IT
Camaraderie and whimsy were two of the biggest themes that glued The Goonies together. The latter point is most obvious in the way everything is framed. Confrontation between the heroes and the villains is comical and laden with slapstick. Silly sound effects and fight choreography straight from a Popeye cartoon removed the tension from each scene.
Moreover, death is something that happens off-screen. Plenty of characters are dead in the film – the FBI agents the Fratellis kill, the previous explorers who tried to find the treasure and failed, and the pirates on One-Eyed Willy’s ship – but nobody dies directly in front of them or the audience. The protagonists never witness an actual murder (witnessing two soon-to-be dead federal agents walking to their doom barely counts), and none of them bite the dust themselves. Whenever they are close to death or are about to be mauled, they are saved by their wits, or the direct and indirect actions of their friends. No matter how horrifying or tense the circumstances were, the main characters were more or less immune to it, or propped up by their friends.
That sense of companionship that the heroes call on is particularly strong. Despite sometimes being occasional thorns in their friends’ sides, they do help and support one another and genuinely worry for each other’s safety. When Data falls into a spike pit, the team looks scared for him. Another scene involving an organ that causes the floor to give out when they hit the wrong notes features the main characters reaching for each other and trying to encourage Andy, who’s manning the keyboard, to think back to her piano lessons. They crack jokes about their situation, which is surely meant to break up the tension for the audience, but you get the sense that they’re also trying to alleviate pressure their friends might be experiencing.
A visual theme that I picked up on when watching Goonies was that of the Rube Goldberg Device. I counted four: one at the Walsh house, a second in the hall where Chester Copperpot’s body was found, a third at the bottom of the wishing well, and the last one on Willy’s abandoned ship. Rube Goldberg Devices are interesting because they use seemingly-disconnected things to set off one another and accomplish something, such as opening a gate or raising an anchor. To me, this is the best metaphor for the Goonies’ companionship. The misfit main characters exhibit a cohesion together that allows them to function as a single unit, and that which pushes the protagonists towards their goal. The device is featured prominently because that’s what the Goonies are as a collective.
When I consider these aspects, the idea of the film’s success – particularly among younger audiences – is more than apparent. These components bring the idea of an adventure to children and make it accessible and easy to understand, all the while promoting the idea of good company and being there for one another. It was easy to imagine children and teens going to see this movie with their friends, and entertaining this idea of going on one huge adventure together, figuring out which of your friends was the Chunk or the Data or the Stef.
And this was the moment when I realized why I never saw The Goonies – not only as a film, but also as a concept.
Because I simply could not see myself in that situation.
PART THREE: I DIDN’T HAVE A CHILDHOOD, YOU SEE
I was always sick.
There was a loose flap of skin in my heart that didn’t close until three days after I was born, and I was afflicted with breathing problems that manifested into a sickness that was at first diagnosed as asthma. I was medicated and on a respirator until I was six or seven years old. There are holes in my memory from when I went into a coughing fit so severe that I blacked out and went to a hospital. Later, I learned that I was likely misdiagnosed, and that the medicines I took most likely gave me asthma-like symptoms that hindered me for literally years.
Additionally, I had problems understanding my peers and connecting with them on a social or psychological level. I was diagnosed with a learning disability when I was young, something that was at the time called Asperger’s Syndrome before the Autism Spectrum expanded and my condition went from being a named thing to something completely different. Mine is a brain with cognitive and motor function problems, one that can be efficient or fast but never both, and one that doesn’t work well with stressful situations – like socializing. This would later play off of the moderate anxiety disorder I ended up developing later in life.
Much of the media I’d consumed growing up was usually themed around monsters or horror because I understood them. Films like Dark Crystal or Enemy Mine featured protagonists who were in unfamiliar territory, being forced to tough it out alone or with one other companion. Alien and Predator involved a big cast of characters that would get slowly whittled down to one or two people by the antagonists. The Sinbad trilogy and Godzilla films had rotating casts, and even the titular characters did not look the same from movie to movie.
Monsters were easy to understand. Monsters were big and strange and beautiful. Lone protagonists were more appealing because that’s how I saw myself. I didn’t understand the idea of a group of people doing stuff together. Perhaps this was also because a lot of my bullies had banded together and formed their own cliques. It was easy for them to pick on someone who was often by himself. As a child, you’re supposed to build relationships with others and make your own squad of people so as to protect yourself, but I couldn’t do that. Other people were frightening to me. I was worried that if what few friends I had somehow came together, they’d turn on each other – or me. When I was eventually dragged kicking and screaming into my friends’ other groups and forced to converse with different children, I was described by them years later as being standoffish and defensive.
Eventually, I would force myself to become more social and tried to invite myself to more events. I had to. I was outnumbered. I realized later in life that I didn’t want to be alone forever. It was anti-evolutionary of me to be alone. Ours is a communal species, and companionship is incredibly important. Yet, the damage done to me in those formative years left their mark. I still have days when I feel like that kid in the schoolyard walking alone by himself, when all I want is to be stuck in an empty room with my thoughts, a sketchpad, a monster movie, or a bowl of ice cream. I still have days when I can’t stand other people or the things they value.
What’s worse, it’s almost become a point of pride.
This was, to be sure, a puerile and unnecessarily bitter decision on my part. It’s a barbed and wicked thought that has evolved into something deeply troubling. For years, I thought it was placed on me by other people. That might have been true, but it’s taken me ages to realize I left it there.
This is why I couldn’t get into Goonies, and why it took me so long to finally sit down with it. It’s why I couldn’t get into so many other series or films about youthful companionship that many of my peers were exposed to growing up. I couldn’t imagine myself with friends, or at least human friends around my age, let alone going on adventures with any of them. I didn’t think I would ever have them, that I’d end up dead or in jail before that ever happened. I couldn’t imagine children my age as being anything other than cruel or manipulative. I opted out of that level of wish fulfillment – that need for friendship – and I traded it in for worlds I’d never see. I chose instead to expose myself to raw, cruel, and alien landscapes.
And I think I’m all the worse for it.
FINAL WORD: NOW WHAT?
To be honest, I’m not sure what this all means.
At the time of writing, it’s been thirty-six hours since I, a lonely eccentric D-list author and media critic, have seen The Goonies in its entirety. Like Richard Donner did with the film itself, I’ve been writing this article sequentially, rather than jumping back and forth between my key points. I’m trying now to lay out what it was that I gleaned from this experience.
I’ve been urged by a couple of friends to make this an ongoing series where I go back and watch all the films and shows I missed out on. I’m not sure if I can do that, now. A children’s film has forced me to confront a very ugly side of myself, and I’m not sure if I can get that same visceral revelation from watching something like Sixteen Candles.
One thing is certain, though. I think I understand why people like The Goonies. Not just that, I think I understand why it matters to so many people. This wasn’t a film for children so much as it was this almost utopian vision of children. This idea that children are meant to be rambunctious and inane, but ultimately that they were smart and capable of great things, especially if they stuck up for each other. It’s not so much a film about friendship so much as it is one that promotes empathy. I find it interesting how the only real “bullies” in this film about children are the much-older Troy and his two bratty jock buddies. There’s no gang of other ten-year-olds on bikes who call the Goonies losers and throw things at them, but three teen boys who get snubbed by Andy and Stef at the end of the second act. It’s a gesture that almost tells its audience “Whatever you do, do not become like them. You are great and you are wonderful, but only if you are those things to other people – for them and for yourself.”
So …I think I get it.
And, if you’re one of the people who’s been urging me to finally watch this film…
I think I get you.
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